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CropBiotech Update 9 January 2009

January 9, 2009
Economic Crisis Threatens Potato Production in Developing Countries
Opinions about GM Change Over Time In US and Europe


Togo Approves Biosafety Law
Biotech Initiatives for Ethiopia
Uganda One Step Closer to Disease Resistant Cassava


Drought Tolerant Corn by Next Year?
Plants with Altered Lignin Structure May Yield more Biofuel
Missouri Scientists to Develop Soybean Database
Agreement to Develop Herbicide-tolerant Wheat
Yale Researchers Release Transcriptome of 40 Rice Cell Types

Asia and the Pacific

New Initiative to Boost Food Security in South Asia
Western Australia Approves GM Canola Trials
Application for Controlled Release of GM Clover in Australia
China's Food Economy Benefits Small Holder Farmers

Buzzing Bees Protect Plants from Voracious Caterpillars
EFSA Funds Study on Vanishing Bees
GM Poplar Research At a Peril
US Leads Cellulosic Ethanol Quest While Europe Lags


GM Rice Resistant to the Tungro Virus
Selenium-Fortified Solanaceous Crops
Lectin Protein in Arabidopsis Confers Resistance Against Pathogens

Potato production in the developing world could suffer as the global economic slowdown reduces investment, trade and potato farmers' access to credit, according to a new report by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. The threat, says FAO, comes at a time when potatoes have become an important staple food and a lucrative cash crop in many developing countries. China is currently at the top of the potato production ladder, and countries such as Bangladesh, India and Iran are the world's leading potato consumers.

FAO's report, New Light on a Hidden Treasure, warns that the economic crisis threatens to reduce flows to developing countries of investment and development assistance, including the support to agriculture that has helped many countries strengthen their potato sectors. Developed countries may be tempted to raise trade barriers, which already apply stiff tariffs on imported potato products, while the banking crisis will leave many farmers with no credit to invest in production in 2009.

FAO and the International Potato Center (CIP) call for "potato science at the service of the poor" to strengthen potato farming in developing countries. FAO noted that potato growers urgently need better quality planting material, varieties that are more resistant to pests, diseases, drought and climate change, and farming systems that make more sustainable use of natural resources.

Read more at http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/8901/icode/ New Light on a Hidden Treasure can be downloaded at http://www.potato2008.org/pdf/IYPbook-en.pdf

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Views of Americans and Europeans about biotechnology have shifted over time. A review of surveys and opinion polls reveal that US opinions are less favorable in the first half of 2000 than they were in the previous decade, and there is less optimism towards the effects of biotechnology and genetic engineering. On the other hand, it is the opposite in Europe. Views improve in the first half of 2000 compared to the previous decade. These were the findings of Sylvie Bonny of INRA, Grignon, France in her review article "How have opinions about GMOs changed over time? The situation in the European Union and the USA" published in CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources 2008.

While the concept of biotechnology in general is acceptable, opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMO) remains very high in Europe but varied according to countries.

See the abstract of the article at http://www.cababstractsplus.org/cabreviews/Reviews.asp?
 or email Sylvie Bonny

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The African country Togo, an immediate neighbor of Burkina Faso, has approved its Biosafety Law. The National Assembly of Togo adopted the law on December 30, 2008. Cotton is Togo's major cash crop.

For more information contact AFODA Chamsoudine, Cellule de Biosécurité-TOGO at afchams@yahoo.fr

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BIO-EARN, an East African regional network for the development of biotechnology, said that it will promote the application of biotechnology in agriculture, industry, and environmental management in order to contribute to sustainable development in Ethiopia. BIO-EARN project and research coordinator, Shumu Teferra, said that together with the Addis Ababa University and the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute, the network will conduct research to address biotic and abiotic stresses in sorghum. BIO-EARN will also release virus-resistant cassava and sweet potato varieties and innovate seed delivery system for sweet potato and cassava at the Awash Melkasa research institution.

Visit http://www.waltainfo.com/walnew/index.php?option=com_content&task=
 for other details of this article.

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Uganda's Namulonge Crops Resource Research Institute (NaCRRI) has completed green house experiments on disease-resistant and high yielding GM cassava varieties, according to a report by the New Vision. NaCRRI now seeks permission from the National Biosafety Committee to transfer the GM plants from the laboratory to the field. The transgenic varieties are resistant to the cassava mosaic virus (CMV) and the brown streak virus (BSV), important constraints affecting cassava production not only in Uganda but in the whole of Africa. If approved, the Institute will have the first genetically modified cassava in the field.

A modern cassava transformation laboratory has recently been constructed at NaCRRI through the support of the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

The full article is available at http://allafrica.com/stories/200901070050.html

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Monsanto Company announced that it has submitted what could be the world's first drought-tolerant corn to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a regulatory clearance. The genetically modified corn has moved into the final phase of development and could be available to farmers as early as 2010, the company said in a press release. Monsanto has been working with Germany-based BASF Plant Science on the GM crop since March 2007.

Trials of the corn conducted last year in the Western Great Plains in the United States have met or exceeded the 6 to 10 percent target yield enhancement over the average yield of 70 to130 bushels per acre (equivalent to approximately 4.4 to 8.1 metric tons per hectare) in some of the key drought-prone areas in the US, Monsanto said. Scientists from public research institutions and agricultural companies are racing to develop new crop varieties that can thrive when water is in short supply amid fears of global climate change.

BASF and Monsanto are also collaborating to develop higher-yielding soybean. Their Intrinsic Yield soybean has moved into Phase 3 and will now undergo expanded field trials, regulatory studies and trait integration into elite soybean germplasm.

Read the press release at http://monsanto.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=43&item=676 or http://www.basf.com/group/corporate/en/content/news-and-media-relations/

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Genetically modified plants expressing 'wood-breaking' enzymes or those with altered lignin content could be the key to a cheaper and greener way of making ethanol, according to researchers from the Pennsylvania State University. The approach also could help turn agricultural waste into food for livestock.

There are lots of energy-rich cellulose in wood, but they are woven in with lignin, a biopolymer that provides plants with strength and protection against pathogens and pests. Separating lignin from cellulose can be time consuming and very expensive, requiring high amounts of hot acids. Genetically modified plants with reduced lignin content have already been developed by researchers. But these plants are usually limp, unable to stay upright, and susceptible to herbivore and microbial attacks.

Instead of decreasing the lignin content of plants, scientists at the Pennsylvania State University altered the structure of the biopolymer. They took a gene from parsley and introduced it into a poplar tree. The gene encodes a protein that inserts itself between two lignin molecules when the lignin polymer is created. The altered lignin is not much different in terms of strength than normal lignin. But they can easily be degraded, using enzymes that attack proteins rather than enzymes that attack lignin. The discovery may also lead to forage crops that can easily be digested by ruminants.

Read the complete article at http://live.psu.edu/story/36682

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Researchers from the Missouri University, USA received a $1.1 million grant from the United Soybean Board to construct a comprehensive database of all proteins and metabolites in soybeans. The database will allow researchers to study changes in proteins and metabolites in soybeans grown under drought and other stressed conditions. It will then be possible to create computerized soybean models that can predict changes in the physiology and biology of the plant under changing environmental conditions. Such models can then be used to engineer better performing varieties.

View the press release at http://munews.missouri.edu/news-releases/2008/

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Arcadia Biosciences, Inc, an agricultural technology company based in California, USA, has inked a research and commercial development agreement with Targeted Growth, Inc. (TGI) for the development of herbicide-tolerant wheat. TGI receives exclusive global rights to the use of Arcadia's herbicide-tolerant wheat plants developed through advanced genetic screening technology. In turn, Arcadia receives an upfront payment, milestone payments and a share of commercial sales.

"Herbicide-resistant crops deliver a distinct benefit to growers and to the environment by increasing crop yields and reducing the need to till the soil. Considering that wheat is the world's largest acreage crop and that herbicide-resistant varieties are not yet commercially available, we see a significant opportunity to help wheat growers increase farm yields and profitability while minimizing overall environmental impact," said Eric Rey, president and CEO of Arcadia.

See Arcadia's media release at http://www.arcadiabio.com/pr_0033.php

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Researchers at the Yale University have published a cellular atlas of genetic activity in rice that documents with unprecedented detail how and when genes are turned on or off. The atlas is the product of a 5-year, mammoth project. It is composed of cell-specific transcriptomes for 40 specific cell types. Transcriptome refers to the set of all messenger RNA transcripts produced in a cell. It provides information on the relative activity of each of rice's 30,000 genes for a particular cell type. The transcriptomes released in this study permit the comparison of any gene's activity among each of 40 cell types, including different stages of the development of roots, shoots and embryos.

"All crops will benefit from knowledge and tools derived from the rice atlas,'' said Timothy Nelson, Yale professor and senior author of the study. "For instance, scientists hope to find networks of genes responsible for photosynthesis and those that could lead to production of food and biomass for uses such as alternate energy."

Read the complete article at http://opa.yale.edu/news/article.aspx?id=6294 The complete paper published by Nature Genetics is available to subscribers at http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ng.282

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Six million small, resource-poor South Asian farmers are expected to benefit from the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA), a new project that aims to substantially boost crop yields and farmer income in the region within 10 years. The project will bring together a range of public- and private-sector organizations, including the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), to enable sustainable cereal production in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. CSISA will be led by IRRI with a three-year US$ 19.59 million support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and US$10 million from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Major objectives of CSISA include better crop management and postharvest technologies and practices; the development and dissemination of improved rice, wheat and maize varieties; and the creation of a new generation of agricultural scientists and professional agronomists. According to IRRI, the project's 10-year goal is for four million farmers to achieve a yield increase of at least 0.5 tons per hectare on five million hectares, and an additional two million farmers to achieve a yield increase of at least 1.0 ton per hectare on 2.5 million hectares. Increased productivity in the region will reduce hunger and malnutrition for hundreds of millions.

For more information, visit http://beta.irri.org/news/index.php/200809084903/

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The Department of Agriculture and Food, Government of Western Australia, approved small scale commercial genetically modified (GM) canola trials in 2009. Agriculture and Food Minister Terry Redman said trial crops will be planted by about 20 farmers in 1,000 hectares. This will be the first commercial trial for GM canola in the state, the nation's largest canola producer.

"This decision is a prudent and responsible one - to proceed in a cautious manner by allowing research to continue into the use of GM technology. I firmly believe the role of any Government is to ensure that farmers have the choice and the tools to expand their businesses and grow their profitability," Redman said.

WA will work closely together with growers to segregate GM and non GM canola. Redman said that there would be stringent safeguards in place for the management of the trials. The Minister has also set up an intergovernmental committee to look at labeling and compliance issues of GM foods.

See the government media release athttp://www.agric.wa.gov.au/content/fcp/co/GM_canola_trials_minister_statement.pdf

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Australia's Office of the Gene Technology Regulator received an application for license from the Victorian Department of Primary Industries for the limited and controlled release of white clover genetically modified (GM) to resist infection by Alfalfa mosaic virus. The trial aims to evaluate the agronomic performance, including seed yield, of the GM white clover line under field conditions. It will be conducted on one site in the local government area of Corowa, New South Wales between March 2009 and August 2011.

For full details of the application visit http://www.ogtr.gov.au/internet/ogtr/publishing.nsf/

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The phenomenal horticultural development over the last 15 years in China has changed the face of the country's agricultural economy. During this time period, modern supply chains have also emerged. A study recently published in the Review of Agricultural Economics reveals that the recent changes in China's food economy have contributed to an improvement in poverty reduction of small farmers. The authors, however, warned that there exists a great challenge to ensure delivery of a safe product.

To describe the emergence of production and marketing structures, Jikun Huang, Scott Rozelle and colleagues used a dataset collected in 2007 from representative sample of fruit farmers in Shandong province. The researchers found that small and poor farms are able to sell into traditional marketing channels. There is no evidence that poor households are getting less access to horticultural markets.

However, the researchers acknowledged that ensuring the safety of China's fruits, particularly apples and grapes, is a daunting task. Since almost all transaction are in cash and done on a spot-market basis, it is very difficult to track fruit shipments back to the farm. After selling their output into the market, farmers in China's horticulture economy are literally free from all accountability.

Read the complete article at http://www.wiley.com/bw/press/pressitem.asp?ref=2017 Subscribers to the journal can access the paper at http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9353.2008.00421.x

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Honeybees protect plants from caterpillars by telling the pesky leaf eaters to buzz off, scientists from the Biozentrum University in Bavaria, Germany, discovered. Caterpillars are equipped with sensory hairs that enable them to detect air vibrations such as the sound of an approaching predator. Indeed a caterpillar's life is not an easy one. Birds love caterpillars and so do carnivorous wasps. Several wasp species even use caterpillars as hosts for their young. Caterpillars therefore evolved features, such as the sensory hairs, to protect them from their enemies.

Jurgen Tautz and colleagues realized that these sensory hairs are not fine-tuned and caterpillars cannot distinguish between hunting wasps and harmless bees. If a flying object approaches, generating air vibrations in the proper range, caterpillars stop moving or drop from the plant. Fruiting trees, heavily laden with blossoms, get frequent visits from foraging honeybees. And caterpillars, stressed with the bees' buzzing eat a lot less, Tautz explained.

The scientists conducted an experiment in which bell pepper plants were placed in tents with beet armyworm caterpillars and bees. They found that plants protected by buzzing bees suffered 60 to 70 percent less damage in their leaves. The discovery might have some practical application for sustainable agriculture. Surrounding crop plants with ornamentals sporting attractive flowers may help increase crop yield in areas infested with caterpillar pests.

The paper published in the recent issue of Current Biology is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2008.10.038.

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The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has awarded a grant of €100,000 (US $140 thousand) to a consortium of European scientific institutes led by the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA) to study the colony collapse disorder in honey bees (CCD). CCD was first used in 2006 to describe the rapid loss of adult bees from a bee colony. Since they play an important role in the pollination of crops, decline in bee populations could have a serious impact on agricultural production. The cause of CCD is not known, although various factors are thought to be responsible including starvation, viruses, mites, pesticide exposure and climate change.

The nine-month project, which is being coordinated by EFSA's Assessment Methodology Unit, aims to identify factors which may contribute to CCD and to highlight gaps in scientific knowledge in order to help guide future research. Existing bee surveillance programs will be analyzed to assess the suitability of the data for measuring CCD across Europe.

More information is available at http://www.efsa.europa.eu/EFSA/efsa_locale-1178620753812_1211902229389.htm

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Belgium's Council for State, the highest judicial court, has suspended the refusal of some federal ministers to allow field trials for genetically modified poplars being conducted by the VIB (Flanders Institute for Biotechnology). VIB requested a permit for a field trial but this request was denied. Poplars possess a modified wood composition, which makes them more suitable for the production of bio-ethanol.

The Council of State said that the refusal of the filed tests "can endanger the further financing and even existence of VIB", that the investment in ten years of top research "threatens to become nullified", and that the refusal of the field test can have negative consequences for the Belgian biotech-sector and for the investments in that sector."

Know more about the suspension case at http://www.vib.be/VIB/EN/News+and+press/

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The United States continues to lead the quest to develop second-generation biofuels while European legislators continue to drag their feet. A paper published by the journal Nature Biotechnology looks into the attitude of legislators from the two sides of the Atlantic on cellulosic biofuels.

A recent US$ 12 million US Department of Energy (DoE) grant to Denmark-based Novozymes for the development of improved cellulase enzymes underscores the country's commitment in ethanol sourced from biomass. The support for cellulose-based biofuel is expected to continue in the US, when President-elect Barack Obama assumes office. During his election campaign, Obama expressed his support for continued subsidies of corn-based biofuels. This is in stark contrast with Europe. Inertia still prevails in the continent. Author Cormac Sheridan noted the backlash over the environmental and economic sustainability of first-generation biofuels appears to have paralyzed progress in establishing definitive European legislation and biofuel targets.

The energy policy of Europe and the US could not be more different. Sheridan pointed out that energy security has been the main driver of US biofuels policy, whereas in Europe, reducing greenhouse gas emissions has received more focus.

The abstract of the article is available at Subscribers to Nature Biotechnology can download the full paper using the same link.

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Researchers from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (DDPSC) have discovered a technology that reduces infection by the virus that causes the Rice Tungro Disease (RTD), a major constraint to rice production in South and Southeast Asia and accounts for nearly $1.5 billion annual loss in rice production worldwide. Genetically modified rice varieties that overexpress either RF2a or RF2b, transcription factors important in plant development and viral promoter expression, are tolerant to infection caused by the rice tungro bacilliform virus (RTBV). RTD is caused by the simultaneous infection of RTBV and the rice tungro spherical virus (RTSV). These viruses are commonly transmitted by the green leaf hopper.

Danforth researchers Roger N. Beachy and Shunhong Dai collaborated with scientists at the Philippine Rice Research Institute to confirm the resistance of the transgenic rice to RTVB in a greenhouse trial. "It has taken a great deal of research effort through the years to gain sufficient information and knowledge about the virus and the host to come to the point of developing a type of resistance to the disease. Hopefully, the results of these studies will lead to improved yields of rice in areas of the world most affected by the disease," said Roger Beachy, lead researcher and DDPESC president.

Combining genes that overexpress the transcription factors with genes that provide resistance to the insect vector could generate new rice varieties with significantly improved resistance to RTD in vulnerable regions in the world.

The paper published by PNAS is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0810303105 Read http://www.danforthcenter.org/newsmedia/NewsDetail.asp?nid=157 for more information

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Numerous studies have been published showing selenium as effective in preventing certain forms of cancer. There are also evidences that the mineral can enhance the efficacy of chemotherapy treatments and reduce the toxicity of chemotherapeutic drugs. Selenium can also boost immunity. Some plants accumulate selenium in the form of methylselenocysteine (MeSeCys). MeSeCys has been shown to have potent anti-carcinogenic effects when applied to animal cancer cell lines and was the most effective anti-carcinogenic selenium containing compound in animal mammary cancer trials. Therefore, increasing the range of crop plants that can produce this compound is an attractive biotechnology target.

Researchers from the New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research developed transgenic tobacco accumulating increased MeSeCys. Introduction of a gene that encodes for an enzyme necessary for MeSeCys synthesis resulted to 2- to 4-fold increase in selenium accumulation. MeSeCys production was increased (up to 20% of total selenium) without toxicity effects on growth. The approach used by the scientists might be applicable in increasing selenium content of other solanaceous plant species such as potato, tomato, pepper and eggplant.

The paper published by Transgenic Research is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11248-008-9233-0

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Lectins are glycoproteins that recognize and bind to specific carbohydrates. They are involved in a range of biological functions, such as plant defense, storage protein, seed germination and plant microbe interactions. Researchers from the Biology Department of Pelita Harapan University, Indonesia and University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Australia, worked together to characterize the Lectin 3.1 (At3g15356) protein in the plant model, Arabidopsis thaliana. Its structure and function were also studied using CD spectra and X-ray crystallography.

The Lectin 3.1 protein has been shown to be highly-expressed in the plant's defense pathway, especially in response to methyl ester jasmonate (MJ). MJ is one of the signals that mediate plant responses to many biotic and abiotic stresses by triggering a metabolic pathway that allows cells to cope with pathogens and stress. Molecular analysis of genetically modified Arabidopsis that contain the gene for increased Lectin 3.1 production were found to contain the two forms of the protein. These lines were found to have reduced number of nematode (Meloidogyne incognita) eggs in an assay involving non-GM and GM lines. This data provides evidence that lectin 3.1 improves plant resistance against M. incognita infection and that the nematode gut lining contains fucose, the receptor of the lectin 3.1 protein.

For more information on this research, visit http://www.biotechindonesia.org/ or email Maria P. Omega at prihtamala_omega@yahoo.com. For information on biotechnology in Indonesia, contact Dewi Suryani of Biotrop at dewisuryani@biotrop.org.

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